By JOEY SAMUEL
In previous years, many viewed the FIFA Club World Cup as a minor tournament that was inevitably going to be won by the European or South American teams. This time around, that could still happen, but the 2011 edition is shaping up to be the most competitive yet.
UEFA champions Barcelona enter the tournament for the third time, having previously appeared in 2009 when they won the final in dramatic, overtime fashion over Estudiantes de la Plata of Argentina. The Spanish and European champions come in as favorites, but the road will not be as easy as in the past.
Their main challenger could prove to be Brazilian side Santos, who earned a spot in the Club World Cup by winning the Copa Libertadores earlier this year. Santos will be led by international sensations Neymar and Ganso, who have spurned moves to Europe mostly due to a desire to play in this tournament. Santos, in their first appearance in the Club World Cup, will receive a bye to the semifinals, just like Barcelona.
After two years of taking place in the United Arab Emirates, the competition returns to Japan this year, where the previous four editions were hosted. Storybook Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol take on OFC Champions' League winner Auckland City in Thursday's opening match of the tournament (5:15 a.m., Fox Soccer Channel).
Kashiwa earned their berth by winning the J-League, as the champion of the host country's domestic league is given a spot in the Club World Cup. Their title run was nothing short of shocking, having been relegated as recently as 2009 to the J-League Division 2. They quickly won that league in 2010 to get back to the first division, and Saturday, against all odds, won the Japanese top flight's 2011 crown despite being newly promoted.
Auckland City, interestingly enough, is the only other team besides Barcelona that has previous experience in the Club World Cup. What's more, the two years they have previously qualified (2006 and 2009) were also the two times Barcelona have appeared. Auckland got to Japan by winning New Zealand's domestic league and then following it up by taking the 2010-11 edition of the OFC Champions' League, which consists of the top teams in the Oceania region.
The winner of that opening matchup advances to take on CONCACAF champion Monterrey on Sunday in one of the two second-round matchups. Monterrey earned their berth in with dramatic win over Real Salt Lake over two legs in the final of the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions' League.
Monterrey appears to be the third-best team headed into the competition, but with proven attacking stars like Humberto Suazo and Aldo de Nigris, it would not come as much of a shock if they made a deep run. If Monterrey defeat either Kashiwa or Auckland, they would face Santos in the semifinals.
The other quarterfinal matchup pits Asian champions Al-Sadd, of Qatar, with African champions Esperance Sportive de Tunis, who hail from Tunisia. The fact that both teams come from Arab countries means that sub-Saharan Africa has no representatives in this year's Club World Cup.
Esperance earned their spot by winning the CAF Champions League. They have no previous experience in the Club World Cup, and their squad is made up almost entirely of Tunisians.
Al-Sadd, meanwhile, captured the 2011 AFC Champions League title to make it to Japan. Qatar's most successful team historically, Al-Sadd previously had won the Asian title in 1988. Al-Sadd looks like strong favorites to top Esperance on Sunday, as the Qatari team's roster features well-known players like Algerian international Nadir Belhadj, Sengalese international Mamadou Niang, and Ivorian international Abdul Kader Keita, all of whom have extensive experience in France's Ligue 1 and other European leagues.
Barcelona will open their participation in the semifinals next Thursday, taking on the winner between Esperance and Al-Sadd. Santos, meanwhile, will face whichever team emerges out of Monterrey, Auckland, and Kashiwa next Wednesday.
How do you see the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup playing out? Do you think a team like Santos or Monterrey could take Barcelona down?
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